What makes a proper football fan?

Updated: May 10, 2020

Over the past few months, I have learned that the following things mark you out as a true fan.

Singing at the game. Not singing at the game. Complaining that people don’t sing at the game. Not complaining that people don’t sing at the game. Singing a particular song at the game. Not singing a particular song at the game. Liking flags. Not liking flags. Standing up. Sitting down. Not standing up. Not sitting down. Going away. Not being able to go away. Watching the team when they are good. Watching the team when they are bad. Watching the team in Europe. Never having been to Europe. Following the team from a far foreign land. Following the team from a far foreign land. (Sometimes, one thing can send two signals at once, it seems). Wanting cheaper tickets. Wanting more expensive tickets. Having a season ticket. Not having a season ticket.

I could go on. [You already have! — Readers]. But you’ll see the point. It seems there as many measures of ‘proper’ support as there are people defining what those measures are.

In any subculture, rules of behaviour emerge. It’s what helps people identify within cultures, it’s how we create those cultures, and it gives us pointers as to how to behave and how to fit in. That’s been important in football culture. And there’s always been an element of exclusivity involved in order to promote the inclusivity of those who sign up to behaving in ‘the right way’. But more often than not, lately, it seems that those measures, those definitions of ‘real support’ are being used exclusively.

Some of that is due to the general atomisation I’ve mentioned before, the breaking down of society into individuals who notice or value connections between themselves less and less. All aided by the way in which we increasingly sit on social media platforms to debate and communicate, rather than do so face-to-face in an environment that means we must consider how we communicate and not just what.

We’ve all got ideas about how our teams ‘should’ be supported. But that doesn’t mean everyone is willing, or able — an important point — to do the same. What’s surprised me is the vitriol with which some expressions of support are denounced sometimes. We’re all, rightly, suspicious of staged shows of support. Support is something that’s still ours, it’s what we create and what only we can do, so we value it being real, organic. But even real and organic support needs some planning and organisation. And that’s where it gets complicated.

At Spurs, the subject of flags has caused some pretty heated debate. The display put on by Dortmund fans at last season’s Europa League game gave fresh imputus to a debate that had been simmering. Why couldn’t we do the same, some fans wanted to know. The answer was that we could, but we needed to get organised. Ah, came the reply, that makes it plastic, staged.

But the fact is, flags don’t appear out of thin air. Just as tifo displays don’t happen because a crowd happens to turn up with loads of bits of cards to randomly find they make a picture when held up. It’s easy to slip into the standard bar room philosophy about health and safety gone mad, but getting a flag into a ground is subject to a load of regulation these days — the days of spraying a bedsheet with an aerosol and turning up are gone. But if the key is the end result, then it’s case of getting on with whatever needs to be done to achieve it. And those German flag displays are the result of a lot of organisation.

Ah, but what about that anti-UEFA banner the Dortmund fans held up? That couldn’t have been subject to regulation, could it? Well, this is just a personal hunch, but I reckon that banner didn’t go through any official channel. That’s the thing about being organised. It opens up all sorts of possibilities. Nice, too, that holding a protest banner up at an away ground means the host club gets the fine–although Dortmund fans have proved willing to make their point at their own ground too.

The Dortmund game did inspire fans, and also encouraged to club the relax and clarify its attitude on flags in the ground. So we’ve seen more visual displays of support in the ground since, which has prompted the view in some quarters that this is not a proper Spurs way of supporting. Remember how this article opened?

Leaving aside the question of why it is not possible to develop new ways of showing support as well as keeping faith with tradition, my personal view is that flags are a big part of the way Spurs fans have shown support. Not in the way Liverpool’s Kop puts on its impressive display pre-match — probably the thing people think of most when flags are mentioned–but through the indivually made banners seen most often on away trips. In Europe particularly, the number and variety of fan-made flags and banners is as good a spectacle as any. I’d like to see more at White Hart Lane, and personally I prefer them to the waver flags that are often used.

But there we are, back to personal preference. Why does all this matter? Well, because our culture matters, for reasons I hope I’ve made clear. But it also matters because we too often don’t help ourselves by the way we write off fans who show support in different ways as ‘not proper fans’. I don’t think we gain anything by narrowing the definition of true fandom.

Some of this debate is rooted in the disquiet of increased commercialism. So we’ll often see criticism of ‘tourists’. Again, what do we mean? Are the Norwegian Spurs season ticket holders who go to most games home away but live in Norway tourists or proper fans? Does a fan who travels from Brisbane to catch a game a couple of times a season count for less than a fan who lives in Enfield? These questions of loyalty and the definitions of proper fandom matter more because of increased demand and short supply, and most of all because of money.

If we can’t get a ticket, we search for reasons why we deserve to get one more than someone else. The only certainty here is that there are too often more good reasons for getting a ticket than tickets available.

One of the sadder ways the current tensons have manifested themselves is in the attitude to season ticket holders. Back in the day, having a season ticket was seen as the ultimate expression of loyalty. It signalled commitment. Now, after prices have rocketed in the Premier League era, having a season ticket is increasingly seen as a signal of wealth. So when I argued, earlier this season, that it was right to prioritise season ticket holders ion certain cases, I was accused of defending entrenched wealth.

The response to that may well be that that boat has already sailed, certainly at Premier League level. We’ve moved on a long way from the days when Spurs were praised for “doing more for the shilling man than any other club in England” (you can read more about that in A People’s History of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club). But there’s also a misconception, perhaps a wilful one, that season ticket holders are all top-hatted cartoon capitalists who wear gold-plated shoes. Many, many of them spend far more of their disposable income than they should on their season tickets. Which causes its own tensions.

To be fair to the club, it does seem to recognise the financial burden. The cheaper cup tickets and, in particular, the Wembley Champions League packages have shown that it’s not all about charging as much as possible.

But it’s still true that rising prices and rising commercialisation have impacted upon our traditional ideas about support and loyalty, too often for the worse. The building blocks of fan culture are straining to cope with the increased pressures of the commercial culture that has grown from that which we created. And so some of those heated arguments about what defines a true fan, true support, are a by-product of that sneaking feeling many of us have that we are trying to hold on to something that may already have gone.

#fans #flags #Football

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